Mount Koya – Overnight in a Buddhist temple

There is a lot of things that people do when they visit Japan. You eat sushi and yakitori. You visit the Tokyo Sky Tree, or wander through the old town of Gion, in Kyoto – But its all been done! If you are looking for something truly different; A real one of a kind experience, then you owe it to yourself to spend at least one night in Mount Koya.

Mount Koya (高野山, Koyasan) is the centre of Shingon Buddhism, one of the main Buddhist sects within Japan, and this tiny, secluded town has developed at the peak of this wooded, misty mountaintop. Arguably the most sacred site in all of Japan, this quiet hamlet plays host to over 100 separate temples (Some dating back to the 830s) a single shop and…. Not much else…

To find it you need to first get yourself to the Namba train station in Osaka. Once there, you need to jump on the Nankai Electric Railway – A rickety and somewhat harrowing single line train, seemingly built directly after the invention of electricity. This train curves along the edge of a mountain range, spiralling its way upward on tracks bolted to the side of the cliff face, often with a wall on one side and a sheer drop on the other.

Once you run out of railway you are most of the way up. Transfer yourself to an even more rickety cable car and that will carry you up to the top of the mountain. A short bus ride from the cable car station later, and you are in the bustling hub of Koyasan.

The temples there practice the tradition of Shukubo – Accepting pilgrims and travellers for lodging overnight. We booked to stay in a temple named Kumagaji, which was built in 834. A sprawling and beautiful maze of wooden corridors and rooms (all of which were totally empty), statues, Buddhist curiosities and occasionally the halls would give way to beautiful internal gardens and courtyards.

We were given a very generously sized room and left to our own devices.

The main reason to visit Koyasan, other than the temples themselves, is the ancient Okunoin mausoleum. Surrounded by a vast graveyard (the largest in Japan) and flanked by giant cedar trees.

A 2-kilometre hike down the overgrown cobblestone paths, through the graveyard, will get you to the mausoleum proper and its Torodo Hall. The hall is filled with more than 10,000 lanterns, which are kept eternally lit & have apparently been burning for 1150 years or so. The graveyard is filled with more than 500,000 gravestones, monuments, Tori gates, statues and other memorials. There were even some oddities in there, such as the monolithic corporate shrines to some members of Japan’s most wealthy companies, like Toyota and Nissan, who have apparently dumped truckloads of yen into the right hands to get those put there.

Returning to our temple before the 9pm curfew (this is a place of worship you arrogant foreign devil, of course there is curfew), we were treated to an amazing vegetarian meal of shojin ryori, a kind of monk cuisine, which was simply spectacular. Easily one of the best meals I have ever eaten in Japan. I cook for a living and they managed to impress me with just how creative you can be with tofu. We relaxed on our futon mattress that had been carefully laid out by the monks, and watched some weird Japanese TV show about cat weight loss, before going to sleep.

We woke up early the next morning, at sunrise in fact, as we had been invited the night before by our hosts to join them in their prayer ceremony. Neither of us were Buddhists but saying “no, I think ill sleep in” seemed awfully impolite. We dutifully accompanied them to their shrine within the temple. It was here that we saw another young western couple, who the monks had apparently been keeping elsewhere within the labyrinthine interior of Kumagaji, as we had not seen or heard anyone else, and had done plenty of wandering around the halls.

The ceremony was really cool. Lots of chanting and drums, followed by ritualistically throwing fuel onto a huge fire bowl. It looked badass, but the chef in me was screaming about the fire hazard. In fact, after it was all over and we began shuffling out, I noticed the roof above was charred black. Oh well, its lasted eleven hundred odd years – What do I know?

Seeing as it was still early as hell (maybe 5am?) and Japan had seen fit to grace us with a cold rain, we decided it would be a fantastic time to go for a walk.

We strolled around the pagodas, streets and temples of Koyasan utterly alone. No sound but the birds, the gentle patter of the rain on our umbrellas and the wind in the trees. Walking around a place like this, that you might expect to see bustling with tourists, while utterly alone is a weird experience. An ancient Japanese “28 days later” kinda vibe. Still, it was amazing to be able to take in the sights without the slightest molestation. Made for great pictures too!

We wandered into the front yard of a temple complex and were invited inside for tea and biscuits (no, really) by the old monks outside. We sat in their huuuuuuuuuge and empty hall and drank our tea. We listened while they spoke to one another about what was no doubt, important monk business, for a while and then took our leave. We slipped out and resumed wandering.

We soon found ourselves at the Kongobuji Temple, again utterly by accident, and were bidden inside by monks who couldn’t understand for the life of them, why two foreigners were wandering about in the rain before 7 in the morning. They let us into the temple and showed us around its resplendent halls, gilded doors, painted walls, intricate carvings, ancient artworks and ornate rooms. More a museum of riches than Buddhist temple. Then they showed us a magnificent rock garden, which we were informed was the largest in all Japan, built to celebrate (if I remember correctly) the leader of their sect’s 1100th anniversary of having ascended into enlightenment.

If I’m honest; it looked like a big bunch of white rocks. Beautiful though.

After some more wandering, we made our way back to our temple, collected our things and bid our monk hosts goodbye. They gave us both plastic jade bracelets and lucky charms for good fortune and set us on our way. As we were leaving, we returned the loan umbrellas we had been using to explore the town and set out catch the bus. When the monks saw we were leaving their temple in the rain without umbrellas, well they were having none of it. They refused to let us leave without taking their umbrellas, knowing full well we could never return them.

If you are reading this guys, and I know you aren’t, thanks for the umbrellas. They kept us dry throughout our adventures in the rest of Japan. We still have them, and much like our experiences in Koyasan will cherish them forever.